Book Review: The Female of the Species

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Title: The Female of the Species

Author: Mindy McGinnis

Genre: YA Contemporary

Rating: ★★★☆

Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.

While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.

But Jack Fisher sees her. He’s the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered hasn’t let him forget Alex over the years, and now her green eyes amid a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn’t want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.

So does Peekay, the preacher’s kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad’s job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex’s protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.

Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever.

Content warning for discussion of rape and sexual assault.

The best way I can describe this book is that it feels like a punch in the gut. Even though it wasn’t truly the book for me, I’m glad that it exists because it really looks at rape culture unflinchingly. It’s a very violent and graphic book, but never in a way that feels gratuitous. But yeah, don’t go into this book expecting sunshine, puppies and rainbows. (Though there are puppies… but you’ll wish there weren’t.)

Overall, I think that the book handled the topic at hand masterfully. It is kind of an “issue book” in that the themes are more important than the plot, but even then I wasn’t expecting something so raw. The ramifications of violence are never left unexplored, and they are very well thought out. It’s not an easy subject, so the book doesn’t offer easy answers. The characters don’t stand on soapboxes, instead they are flawed and screw up many times, getting called out when necessary. For example, Peekay holds some misogynistic views on your stereotypical mean girl Branley, but Alex never agrees and the book itself never frames Branley as a caricature, but as a full-fledged character. It truly speaks volumes that this book gets across its message without having to sacrifice its humanness.

As I said, the book’s messages are mostly conveyed through moments. Some really great one at that. McGinnis shows a lot of nuance in her portrayal of rape culture by including the big ones (like the horrific murder of Alex’s sister, Anna) along with the little ones like lewd comments or double standards. There is a particularly great moment when Alex points out how easily little remarks go unexamined and how “no one protested because this is our language now.”

The writing also perfectly reflected that. It is crass when it needs to be, but most of all it is honest. Alex proclaims at one point, “My language is shocking,” and McGinnis’ own often is. It is very effective in its simpleness, especially given how it is written in first person present tense aka probably my least favorite tense to read. These aren’t the squeaky-clean kids that never swear or discuss sex, and the book is so much better for it.

Now, about Alex, I had never seen a character like her in YA. In a way she reminded me a lot of Jessica Jones because of how the narrative depicted her anger as valid. Alex has many reasons to be angry and unapologetically so. It’s sadly rare to see this in female protagonists still, outside of YA even. Her violent side is definitely not downplayed or portrayed as something to be looked up, so she’s a genuinely morally grey and flawed character.  There’s a lot more to her, too, like her love for animals or her kindness. Although Jack and Peekay, the other narrators, are also well developed, Alex steals the book thanks to how unique her voice is.

Where this book kind of lost me was the plot. There isn’t much of one. It just sort of slogs through a school year with random things happening. The characters are compelling enough that I kept reading, don’t get me wrong. However, there are some sections where the only stakes are the romantic relationships between the characters where I just couldn’t. Those just aren’t the things I latched onto as a reader. Then the ending just comes out of nowhere when things are looking up for the characters. Though the ending serves the themes and messages fittingly, it doesn’t fully serve the plot. These issues were what kept me from fully connecting to this book.

 

This isn’t your typical YA contemporary for sure. I fully recommend it if you’re looking for a smart, unflinching book and prepared for its heavy topics.

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